Bridges and Democracy

One of the big local issues here in Portland recently has been the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). There is currently a proposal to spend about $4 billion dollars on a new bridge across the Columbia River for I-5 freeway. This freeway carries traffic from Seattle down through Portland on it’s to (and through) California. Portland sits right at the border of Washington and Oregon, so the bridge is the responsibility of both States as well as the Feds. It is a huge project, and a controversial one.
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A few days ago I sent a form letter from this site to my local reps (in both Oregon and Washington) to let them know that I was opposed the the general idea of replacing the bridge. I got two responses, both from councilors in Vancouver, WA (just across the river from Portland). Pat Campbell responded to the form letter by asking if I had more specific recommendations. I sent this in response:

Pat,

Thank you for responding personally to my note. My view is that we need to reduce the amount of auto traffic around the region, and that includes between Vancouver and Portland. The decisions about the CRC will dramatically affect the choices that individuals make in where they live, where they work, where their kids go to school and how they get between all of these places. Reducing auto congestion on the CRC will encourage more driving, more suburban sprawl and separation of community. We need to encourage people to live near where they work, or to use means other than personal autos to get to where they need to go. Making public transport, biking, walking and carpooling the default choice for getting around our region should be the goal. It won’t be easy, or cheap, because of the big cultural shift required, but I know that our region is up to the task.

The system we have today, which relies on personal autos to keep our economy healthy, has served us well for many years. But it cannot continue to scale. High gas prices and home foreclosures are the symptoms of a longer term shift that we need to be aware of in our planning. More of the same just won’t serve us in the long term.

My family is lucky enough to live near our children’s school and my work. To us, it feels like a luxury to be able to get around by public transport, bike and foot. It is a luxury that we would like more people to be able to afford, but for most, it is out of reach. Projects like the CRC keep this luxury out of reach by encouraging unsustainable practices. Increased auto traffic means developers are encouraged to build further out. It means that business are encouraged to hire from further off. It means that centralized shopping dominates.

My specific suggestions for the CRC would be for a plan that reduces the amount of lanes available for personal autos and dramatically increases flow of public transport and bike options. Make the public transport options as fast or faster than personal auto and people will get out of their cars. Express service from between downtown Vancouver and downtown Portland would be a crucial piece of the puzzle. This may all sound a little far-fetched right now, but the long-term future of our region depends on these important choices. The future will not look like today but only bigger. The future will be fundamentally different.

Thank you, and keep up the good work.

Sincerely,

Dave Sohigian

The next day Pat wrote back with:

Dave,
Thanks. You make a lot of good points. Maybe we are about to have that cultural shift you note. This is something I’ve been thinking about as well. The CRC started their work when gas prices were relatively cheap and the situation is now markedly different.

Sprawl as you note has severe downsides. Now with the vastly increased costs of oil based energy and oil based products from PVC pipe to asphalt, even maintaining the structures we have is challenging government budgets. Eventually, are we going to see the deconstruction of our sprawled out suburbs and denser patterns of urban growth?

In a meeting yesterday evening in Portland of the Metro Policy Advisory Committee, it was pointed out that the cost to the government (taxpayer subsidies) of a home out is the suburb fringe is now $90,000 compared to a $50,000 for a similar home in an urban setting. My guess is that the larger figure over time is becoming much higher.

I appreciate your input Dave and will share it with the Council.
Sincerely,
Pat Campbell

I was impressed. Not only did he read his email, respond to what was clearly a form letter campaign, but he read my message and thoughtfully responded to it. This is particularly impressive given that the Vancouver City Council has been a major force in pushing the CRC because it would mean so much for their city’s economy.

What I found particularly interesting about his message was the comment about the taxpayer subsidies of $90K for homes in the “suburb fringe” vs. $50K in the city. This is stunning. I think many people, families in particular, move to the ‘burbs because they get “more for their money”. The reality is that they are getting more for OUR money!

The moral of this story, for me, is that letter writing can work. I plan on re-sending my more personal message to the other city officials (in Portland and the Metro area) who have influence over the CRC. I encourage others to do the same, but be sure to use your own subject and words in the message. They are probably already tired of reading the same message repeated over and over.

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